The term known as Screwball is one of the most prominent forms of comedy. This particular facet of comedy was in it’s prime during the Great Depression when audiences found the cinema the ideal way to elude and dissociate themselves from the banal aspects of daily life.
Screwball Comedy was particularly known for the offering of escapist themes that would allow people to detach themselves from the formidable existence and hardships that many Americans were enduring at the time. It has been said that Preston Sturges validated that notion when he embarked on the project of Sullivan’s Travels, where he purposely created the end scene of the assembled group of destitute men in prison who are absorbed in a viewing of a Mickey Mouse cartoon. From then on plots that separated people from the oppressions in real life became pivotal in films.
During that time a plethora of films with notable importance were released. Some of these have since evoked a large following in the popular culture of today while others rated well at the box office but have become archaic as the years progressed.
The same can be said about Nothing Sacred, a 1937 satirical farce starring Carole Lombard and Fredric March. Dating back to it’s initial release, the film garnered wide recognition and was regarded as one of the most eminent Screwball Comedies of the time, but as the years followed, Nothing Sacred has slowly descended into the category of forgotten masterpieces.
Carole Lombard possessed a unique ingenuity for comedy which made her a great asset for the Screwball genre. A year prior to Nothing Sacred, Lombard attained critical acclaim for her portrayal of Irene Bullock in My Man Godfrey, a film that is now considered to be her most memorable.
With the success and the Academy Award nomination that Carole had obtained for My Man Godfrey, Myron Selznick gave Lombard some sound advice and encouraged her to spread her wings by going freelance instead of sticking to the one studio. Carole agreed to have Myron do some canvassing around for her and shortly after he secured her a contract with the Selznick Studio’s which were operated by his brother, David.
At Selznick Studio’s, Carole Lombard jumped straight into work on the production of Nothing Sacred, a satirical Screwball Comedy about a young girl who is supposedly dying with radium poisoning.
Nothing Sacred was directed by William Wellman who was prolific for his work in adventures, actions and crime, and derived from a story by James H. Street. The film consisted of a few different screenwriters, the most notable being Ben Hecht, who had originally written the role of Wally Cook for his friend, John Barrymore, but problems ensued when David Selznick refused to hire Barrymore due to his incurable alcohol addiction. This caused altercations between the two, resulting in Ben Hecht who believed that the part of Wally Cook was tailor made for John Barrymore abandoning the project and being replaced by Budd Schulberg and Dorothy Parker who continued writing the final scenes.
While Nothing Sacred is not as better remembered like some other cinematic staples, it sure does mark an ounce of distinction for the fact that it was the first Screwball Comedy to be shot in Technicolor, and for being the first film to epitomize the colour film process effects, montage and rear screen projection.
The film tells the story of Hazel Flagg ( Carole Lombard ) a young girl from Warsaw, Vermont, who has been misdiagnosed with radium poisoning and presumably facing the last chapter of her life. Back in New York, newspaper reporter, Wally Cook ( Fredric March ) has been relegated to the obituary section after being blamed for an incident at a charity event, but Wally who knows that he was wrongfully accused implores his boss Oliver Stone ( Walter Connelly ) for a second chance and requests that he ventures out on a new project that is sure to result in fireworks.
After winning the battle with his boss, Wally Cook embarks on a journey to Vermont to take on the challenging assignment of locating Hazel Flagg, so he can interview her in the hopes of acquiring efficient information for a newspaper story to evolve. Ironically Wally encounters Hazel at the entrance of her doctors office and once he discovers that she’s crying he automatically invites her to New York as a guest on the Morning Star newspaper. From that moment on Hazel finds herself in the middle of shambling publicity and circulation that sweeps her into a perplexing position that she must try to escape.
The plot of Nothing Sacred is more satirical rather than Screwball and focuses on mocking the harsh realities of life, but instead of making fun of a terminally ill human being, the film is combined with many elements of comedy to help bring light to what would be considered a catastrophic situation.
Around town Hazel Flagg is known as the girl who is about to meet her doomed fate. In truth young Hazel is a vigorous human being who is perfectly healthy, but has faced the terrible misfortune of an incorrect diagnosis that determined that she was dying from radium poisoning. However the doctors examination of Hazel’s condition proved to be false, and while Hazel is elated about the news she is also disappointed that her dying wish of travelling to New York won’t be granted.
Luckily for Hazel her wish is granted when she meets Wally Cook who believes that her condition is terminal and wants to take her back to New York with him, but while she is euphoric about finally eluding her drab life in Vermont, she soon discovers that her dream trip to New York is coming at a cost. Hazel certainly pays for it when she becomes a national hero who is constantly pursued and badgered by publicity for a disease that was misdiagnosed.
Carole Lombard perfectly executes her rendition of Hazel Flagg, and even though the film is classed as black humour, Lombard with her exalted wit and mechanisms was still able to bring comicality into her role while also delivering a poignant approach. By viewing Lombard’s performance in Nothing Sacred, “The Queen of Screwball Comedy” epithet that Carole attained was clearly evident.
From the sharp acidic dialogue to the astute and imaginative script that explores the ambidexterity of people who take themselves seriously and will do anything for a free holiday, Nothing Sacred is a timeless classic that features a picturesque Carole Lombard with striking golden blonde hair in her only Technicolor production.
After one fight scene with Fredric March, Carole Lombard had to take the following day off to recuperate from her scratches and bruises. To discourage March’s attentions, she invited him to her dressing room one night; after preliminary fumbling, March discovered to his disgust that she was wearing a rubber dildo. He never bothered her again.
Carole Lombard: Born Jane Alice Peters on October 6th, 1908 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Died: January 16th, 1942 on Mount Potosi, Nevada. Age 33. Cause of death: Airplane crash.
Fredric March: Born Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickel on August 31st, 1897 in Racine, Wisconsin. Died: April 14th, 1975 in Los Angeles, California. Aged 77. Cause of death: Prostrate Cancer.